When I first pitched the Vague Patch Notes that ran a couple weeks back, it prompted a big long discussion with MOP’s editor Bree about design goals and how MMOs operate. This is not exactly unusual; we talk about that stuff a lot, even behind the context of what’s going to lead directly to a column. It’s sort of a thing. But it also prompted some interesting discussions about one of her personal bugbears in the form of endgame, which wound up leading into a further discussion about the nature of endgames in MMOs.
Here’s the thing: There are no MMOs without an endgame. In every MMO you reach a certain point where there are no more rungs of power to climb, and you need something for players to do at that point aside from “stop playing.” But there are also games that we think of as having an open nature where the endgame isn’t the entire game, and there’s a distinct difference between those and games where the endgame is a very different beast. And that goes into a talk about the nature of endgames, about reaching the top end, and what actually makes for a sandbox experience.
And yes, it ties into play conditioning. I told you that story so I could tell you this one, like Alice’s restaurant.
Let’s start with some terminology, at least for this particular discussion’s sake. The easiest way to do this is to actually steal from WildStar, which liked to throw around the term “elder game” for its own endgame, but for our purposes we’re going to make the distinction of calling the elder game the portion of the game wherein you have finished leveling, reached a full set of equipment, done all of the requisite skill grinding, or whatever. Endgame, meanwhile, refers to activities which exist only at the level cap in any relevant fashion.
Every game has an elder game. That’s a point when you have completed the climb. Not every game has an endgame, which is confusing, because the terms are technically synonyms.
In Final Fantasy XI, there is a level cap (Level 99, at this point), and while there’s still some leveling equivalent to be done with the aid of merit points and job points, there’s no more content that is gated beyond story requirements. You can, at that point, do whatever you so desire. And the content you can take part in is… largely the same as the stuff that you’ve been doing on the regular before that point. There are some harder modes for certain content, and there are rewards that aren’t really helpful to pursue until you’re level 99, but even just continuing to level for merit points is advantageous.
By contrast, once you hit the level cap in WildStar, the game changed to be a different animal. Your only realistic and worthwhile goal was to acquire more power via gear. (This changed late in the game’s life cycle, but it’s debatable how much of an impact it made.) Instead, you were now being funneled to raids and medal-chasing in dungeons, neither of which had been activities you cared about or even existed during the leveling process.
This, then, is the split. There’s an elder game in FFXI, but the point of the elder game is that the game begins as it means to go on. The point of the endgame is that the leveling process is fundamentally filler, that it’s there to separate out the talentless scrubs who can’t manage to level up, because leveling up is a big accomplishment.
For the record, leveling up has never been an accomplishment. I should do a piece on that. Another week.
Remember how the conditioning article talked about the fact that Final Fantasy XIV tells you that you will be doing dungeons while World of Warcraft lets you totally ignore them all through leveling? This is where that becomes particularly relevant. By the time you hit level 50 in the former, you’ve already experienced the vast majority of what your content is going to be, whether it be for crafting, gathering, or combat jobs; there are still a few more wrinkles to be introduced, but there are no sudden swerves waiting in the wings. The game began as it means to go on.
But WoW… does not. It changes completely between the leveling game and the endgame, and your priorities violently swing in a different direction. Ironically, the game’s daily quests at least kept the questing format standard between the two, but world quests literally do not exist below the level cap; it’s a shift that has an audible clunk, like a car moving from first gear to fourth without bothering to stop at any of the intermediary gears between.
Herein lies the real problem and the reason why terms like “endgame” can become such dirty words. If you’ve been enjoying the game you played up to this point, you’re stuck with a completely different experience once you reach the level cap, one that bears only the broadest similarity to the game you were playing before. If you enjoy the game at the level cap, it feels like the rest of the game is just pointless garbage you need to go through on the way to reaching the real game.
And this is not really a problem you see in other games. You may or may not like games like Anthem, for example, but those games make their core rotation of gameplay (go shoot some guys, get gear, go shoot bigger guys) part of the game right from the start. Diablo III doesn’t spend a long stretch of time being about choice-heavy narrative gameplay before suddenly throwing you into loot farming.
But then you play Star Wars: The Old Republic and hear the game creak audibly as you move from that choice-heavy narrative into raiding for better and better loot. It’s egregious.
And here’s where we run into that terminology issue. From a strictly “accepted definition” standpoint, games like City of Heroes and Guild Wars are themeparks, both of which are games that Bree herself likes to argue as more akin to sandboxes. From one standpoint, that’s wrong… but when you consider that a defining feature of sandbox games is that they tend to start as they mean to go on, it’s correct. And that raises the specter of how we’re distinguishing between these different styles and what counts as belonging to what genre… a highly relevant consideration when we’re dividing up how we think about games.
The problem, then, is not the existence of an elder game. That’s just the reality of games being what they are; it can sometimes be a very flat power curve (looking at the original Guild Wars here), but there is still a power curve from top to bottom. Rather, it’s a matter of whether you feel like the climb along that curve is a prelude or a preview. And if it’s the former, you’re gong to have a problem where the game suddenly lurches into a new style once you’ve done the leveling.
Or in other words, it’s not the endgame. It’s the sudden shift at the end.